Monday, November 11, 2019

It's Getting Late Early: November in The 5MR

This Common Merganser bellows a simple song: FIVE MILE RADIUS! FIVE MILE RADIUS! Photographed at Almaden Lake in San Jose.

And then it was November. Suddenly the heinous notion of the year 2020 is not such a far-fetched idea after is a terrible reality, just waiting for us right around the corner, lurking in the shadows cast by the specter of what Hunter S. Thompson would surely call "this foul year of lord, 2019." By the time we realize it is here, it will be too late.

But Hunter has been dead since 2005, and from his point of view...maybe that was for the best. Here we are in golden weeks of 2019, an age when Hope is Dead and Idiocracy is Real. But one phenomenon swept over birders in 2019 that has changed many hearts and minds forever, and the world is not a worse place for it. No, it's not ID by democracy or identifying everything as a hybrid, it is the FIVE MILE RADIUS. It's high time BB&B checks in with my 5MR, which is running smoothly after a grinding start to the fall.

You may recall that I connected with an Eastern Kingbird in my YARD of all places back in June. July delivered a radial gift on a similar scale - a self-found Red-eyed Vireo, which I found by walking out my back gate out to the ponds behind my house. Red-eyed Vireo is a MEGA vague for Santa Clara County and the first I'd seen in California in many years, though they are more expected in coastal counties. Like the kingbird, it was a one day wonder and easily one of my top 5MR birds ever, let alone this year. Photographed at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.

But after a surprisingly productive summer, things really slowed when fall migration was supposed to get under way, at least on the year bird front. August had but a single new addition to the 5MR year list (Scaly-breasted Munia, ew), and September had only two, a Willow Flycatcher (clutch - they are very uncommon and come through for a brief window) and American Wigeon (a "gimme" I knew I would run into eventually). By the end of September, I was wondering if my radius would actually be fading in fall instead of lighting up. September was good for Vaux's Swifts at least, like this one at Los Gatos Creek County Park.

Incredibly (to me), on this day many swifts were foraging *on* several conifer trees - they would make contact or "land" briefly among the needles as they presumably gleaned insects. I have never seen a Vaux's Swift previously make contact with anything denser than air. Here you can see a swift entangled in the foliage, and yes, this is a Vaux's Swift-Anna's Hummingbird combo.

More gleaning swifts. There is also an eastern gray squirrel partially hidden in there, which I didn't see at the time. I love me some novel swift combos.

The fall rarity drought vanished as soon as the calendar changed to October. I successfully chased this spiffy Clay-colored Sparrow, which was also a county bird. Not only was it a county bird, it is the species that sparked the entire Lori Meyers fiasco from last year! Not the vaguest vanguard but a very nice rarity for the county. I would also go on to find two more Clay-colored Sparrows of my own last month, all in my 5MR! In the fall of 2018, Clay-coloreds went unrecorded in the county entirely. Photographed at Vasona Lake County Park.

This was the last Western Wood-Pewee I saw this year. Sadly, I likely will not be adding additional flycatchers in 2019, although I hold out hope for a vague runt Eastern Phoebe or something of that sort. I will most likely finish the year with a middling 9 flycatcher species, with Eastern Kingbird headlining that group and Western Kingbird and Olive-sided Flycatcher being new for the 5MR. I missed a locally rare Cassin's Kingbird last winter, and its likely Hammond's Flycatcher passed through undetected. Photographed at Vasona Lake.

One day, while sitting on the couch vacantly staring into my backyard, I saw a yellow-green bird appear next to the Rancho de Bastardos bird bath. I almost didn't look at it with binoculars, utterly convinced it would be yet another Lesser Goldfinch, but I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, and one of the reasons you all look up to me is because I practice and preach DUE DILIGENCE. So I went ahead and hopelessly glassed the bird as it plopped down into the bath, and almost fell off the couch when I saw it was in fact a TENNESSEE WARBLER...which was not just a yard bird, not just a 5MR bird, but a county bird! And the only one seen in Santa Clara County in 2019. It was also the first warbler of any species to use the bird bath since April! I was, and still am, astounded. Don't you just love geri birding?

Minutes later, a Western Tanager dropped in. I had seen and heard them from the yard a number of times, but this was the first one *in* the yard. Quite the day of geri.

The yard has continued to produce good birds ever since baptized by the Tennessee Warbler. This Northern Pintail (left, Gadwall on the right) was not only a yard bird, it was a new radius bird! Cackling Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Pine Siskin from the yard all were new recent 5MR year birds.

Ok, this is the last yard bird, I swear. Though I've seen one from the yard once before, a California Thrasher has been a totally unexpected addition to the yard flock, and it has been here daily for the last couple weeks. It's a nice bird to have in the 5MR, where they are fairly common at a few places, but it's a weird yard bird considering the less-than-marginal habitat in the area.

Seeing this normally retiring scythe billed friend casually hanging out with the sparrows, towhees and doves all the time has taken some getting used to. It seems to relish our wood chip situation, as it really flings those things with reckless abandon. It's not particularly wary. When in Rome, right?

I'm lucky to have a little bit of grassland at the edge of my radius. I recently hiked up here in a desperate bid to get a new radius bird (I had a few targets in mind) and was rewarded with a Prairie Falcon, my latest and greatest new 5MR bird. I got it only because I was doing a stationary count in a spot where a White-tailed Kite was sitting nearby - the falcon appeared out of nowhere and started tangling with the kite. This was part of the November 5MR Challenge, but of course you knew that. It was a steep hike so I didn't bring a camera (and I knew I would see something good if I left it at home) so here is a picture of the area from earlier this year when things were green - this is a good microcosm of my radius, awesome open space on one side colliding abruptly with urban sprawl.

Not new, not rare, and not photographed in my yard - I just like Red-breasted Sapsuckers and so do you. Glad they will be around again for the winter. Photographed at Vasona Lake.

I'll finish with 10 target birds I've got for the rest of the year, we'll see how it goes. Some are more likely than others, but all of these could be my 5MR as you read this. A disturbing thought indeed.

American Bittern
Snow Goose
Ross's Goose
Greater Scaup
Western Gull
Mew Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Varied Thrush
Swamp Sparrow
Evening Grosbeak

We'll see if I get many (any?) of these in about 7 weeks! My self-imposed 5MR bourbon challenge is still in play and I may find myself forced into buying whiskey any day goal for the year in my 5MR is 185 and I'm so close I can taste it. Good luck to all you radius birders out there for the rest of're gonna need it.


  1. Solid targets. Bittern is definitely in my top 10 as well. Have you done any more stationary counts? I'm realizing that standing still-ish for ten minutes is very difficult for me when there are no/few birds.

    1. I've done a few, my main problem is that I keep forgetting to do them. Yeah if you do them in random spots they can be a drag.

  2. Varied thrush ... where oh where

  3. Great post Seagull. I’m curious, how is your CBC season going? Does your radii-rection extend to the circles that are Christmas bird count-inspired? Or is it limited to the pagan 5MRvariety? In the spirit of Christmas, I figure one might beget the other.

    1. I rarely do CBCs, I keep the radii nice and pagan...but I was made the official gull counter for a single lake in a CBC last week that can get good flocks. It was a shameful task, to be sure, but I think I executed it well.